To any die-hard theater geek, a show that begins with Joel Grey and ends with Liza Minnelli ranks as a good one — so well done, Monday night’s benefit for the Vineyard Theatre! The evening, honoring John Kander (of legendary Broadway songwriting duo Kander and Ebb) was hosted by a dependably droll David Hyde Pierce, who told bad theater jokes (“I’m hosting, so it’s a gay-la”; “We wanted to capture the perfect tenor for this evening — and we did, he’s waiting off stage”) and gave a wonderfully deadpan rendition of “Ten Percent,” a lost Chicago ode to theater agents.
Grey, iconic as Kander and Ebb’s Emcee in Cabaret, was the night’s surprise opening guest, performing “Wilkommen” with cane in hand. If he couldn’t quite hit the ending high note, his creepy charm was still very much intact. Debra Monk hustled in a yellow boa for Steel Pier’s cheeky “Everybody’s Girl”; Karen Ziemba turned in a moving, wistful rendition of “New York, New York”; Mario Cantone blustered through “Chief Cook and Bottle Washer” (from The Rink, which he called Kander and Ebb’s “first Italian-American musical”); and Kristin Chenoweth showed up to introduce Ziemba, sadly not gracing us with her rendition of the Cabaret showstopper “Maybe This Time,” which she killed with on Glee (Heidi Blinkenstaff of Title of Show took on the song, though her performance was vocally meek). Grand dame Chita Rivera, still feisty at 77, blew the relative youngsters out of the water with a saucy performance of “All That Jazz.” Rivera, who originated the role of Chicago’s Velma Kelly onstage, shared an amusing anecdote of meeting Catherine Zeta-Jones, who won an Oscar for the same role. Referring to the famed piano intro to the song, she recalled telling Zeta-Jones, “You can keep the Oscar — I’ll keep ma’ vamp!”
Liza, the draw of the evening, was conspicuously absent from her midpoint slot on the program. We worried the absence was due to a Minnelli meltdown, but it seems that her move to the closing spot (a more apropos placement, anyway) was because of nothing more than a wardrobe malfunction. She arrived in fantastically Liza fashion: fur coat, black sweatshirt, and black velour sweatpants tucked into black Uggs (one encircled with a sparkly bracelet, one not. Mistake, or genius?). “A funny thing happened on the way to the theater,” she began with a sigh, to outbursts of laughter. “You see, I had this wonderful gown to wear, and I’ve lost some weight since my knee replacement. It was a spiffy outfit, spiffy! And then the strap broke, it’s so old.” Cue the laughs! “And I had these shoes — but I couldn’t walk in them because they were too high. But Johnny [Kander] once told me, ‘Sew up!’” More laughs! Banter aside, Minnelli sat on her fur and killed her tailor-made Kander and Ebb anthem, “And the World Goes Round,” setting up Kander’s own appropriately kooky thank-you. Ushered to the stage by Minnelli, he sighed, “I’m glad my parents taught us to drink.”